Space Music II: Holst, Mysticism, and ‘The Planets’

Neptune, as captured by Voyager 2 in 1989. CREDIT: NASA

This article is a continuation of my ‘Space Music’ series. For Part 1, click here.

by Henry Myers

If you’ve never heard Gustav Holst’s The Planets, Op. 32, then stop reading this post, cancel your appointments for the rest of the day, grab your best pair of headphones, find a dark room, and listen to the freaking Planets.

Even after having known The Planets for the two decades that I’ve been self-aware, I still find it to be one of the most consistently fun, joyful, and enriching listening experiences of any piece of music (short of the soundtrack to Labyrinth). Extraordinarily colorful, delightfully varied, and  exciting as all hell, it never fails to trigger a myriad of associations, images, and emotions. Maybe it’s the orchestration, or my upbringing, or the era in which I grew up, or perhaps all of these things, but there’s something about The Planets which conveys to me a sense of immensity, of respect for the grandeur of the cosmos. I guess what I always imagined the piece to be was a set of anthropomorphic representations: that is, Mars, a barren, red wasteland symbolized lifelessness and ruins; the hugeness of Jupiter surrounded by its many moons represented vivaciousness and nobility; the dark blue glow of far-away Neptune became a gatekeeper to the great unknown. Of course, my imagination has been bolstered by the advent of modern astronomy, particularly from growing up with actual photographs of the planets taken by unmanned spacecraft. And having passed away in 1934, more than twenty years before the Space Age began in 1957 (ushered in by the launch of Sputnik), Holst had imagined none of this. Well, then, what was the genesis for The Planets?

This could take some time, so bear with me.


Gustav Holst. From the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London

Gustav Holst. Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London

Gustav Holst was born on September 21st, 1874 in Cheltenham, England. A fourth generation musician, Holst was educated at the Royal College of Music, where he studied composition and trombone. A late bloomer compositionally speaking, Holst’s early music showed heavily the influence of Richard Wagner (he heard Gustav Mahler conduct Götterdämerung at Covent Garden in 1892), although early on his close friendship with Ralph Vaughan Williams sparked interest in the English folksong revival, an interest that would continue throughout Holst’s maturity (and one that is quite evident in “Jupiter” and “Uranus” of The Planets especially). It wouldn’t be until later that Holst would shake off Wagner and come into his own as a composer, setting himself apart from many of his English contemporaries through his incorporation of Eastern ideology into his music.

By all accounts, Holst was a sensitive, complex, intellectual kind of guy: to his daughter Imogen, he was “emotionally inhibited, a detester of conventions, and naive”, but that he “rejoiced in ideas which were fantastic or unexpectedly humorous”; by a friend, he was described as “a real lover of mankind and of the struggling man.” Holst was also famously neurotic (as creative people are wont to be), being one to constantly question everything about his life but not one to cope well with failure. Evidently, he was both an idealist and an intellectual. And for Holst, idealism and intellectualism went hand in hand.

It’s probably unsurprising, then, that in his compositional maturity Holst would take an interest in Eastern philosophy. Serving as backdrop for this interest was, first and foremost, cultural exchange/appropriation as a result of the British occupation of India: according to Holst scholar Raymond Head, “There was not only the fact of Indian exhibitions, but a steady flow of important Indian visitors to England and the West which only served to heighten awareness of India”. This awareness is perhaps most manifest in the philosophy/mysticism known as ‘Theosophy’, which drew heavily from Hinduism. Aside from showing its influence in modern Astrology (which also incorporated elements of Eastern mysticism), many leading composers and artists of the day had Theosophical leanings or interests, not least among them Scriabin, Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Walter Gropius, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, and W. B. Yeats. India was thus very much a part of the artistic consciousness of early 20th century Europe.

But for Holst, at least (again according to Imogen), his interest in India began only after coming across a book by one R. W. Frazer entitled Silent Gods and Sun Steeped Lands, which proposed that Eastern thought (in particular, Hinduism) contained fundamental truths lacking from Western religions and philosophy, and that to combine the wisdoms of both hemispheres would lead to the “moral and intellectual advance of mankind”. Naturally, Holst’s idealism got the better of him. In what would become known as his “Sanskrit period”, he was inspired to write a number of pieces based on Sanskrit texts: in particular, his operas Sita, based on the Ramayana, and Savitri, based on the Mahabharata; Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda; and The Cloud Messenger, an ambitious large-scale cantata for full Chorus and Orchestra.

This new creative outpour, however, was underscored by failure. Though Choral Hymns was met with mild success, the premiere of Cloud Messenger had been a disaster, and Savitri wasn’t to be performed until years later (Sita, to this day, remains unperformed). Ever the idealist, he confessed to a few friends that “If nobody likes your work, you have to go on for the sake of the work”, and that every artist “ought to pray that he may not be a success”, that he (forgive gender bias) can “concentrate upon the best work of which he’s capable”. Of course, Holst had fooled nobody with this statement (not least of whom, himself), and it was quite apparent that he was deeply depressed. In line with his questioning nature, he entered a period of introspection and self-discovery. For Holst, this meant pursuing Theosophical avenues.


Logo of the Theosophical Society

Logo of the Theosophical Society

“But what the heck is Theosophy?”, you ask. Well, in a broad sense, Theosophy (from Greek, literally meaning “divine wisdom”) is an esoteric philosophy that believes that divine consciousness/truth can be found within oneself, and that enlightenment is the realization of this consciousness/truth. According to Theosophy, this personally unknowable, divine consciousness/truth (which some might call “God”) is present in every atom of every thing (living or non-living) in every cubic micron of the cosmos. It’s not really a religion, however: aside from a lack of scripture, a major tenet of Theosophy is that each religion contains some elements of fundamental (theosophical) truth. One can be religious but also a Theosophist. But removing any notion of a personal “God” from the picture, I guess what Theosophy gets at is that behind the perceptual world we experience and attempt to measure/quantify/analyze, there is an unseen world/force/consciousness/truth/field/something that is the ‘first cause’ for everything, and that our road to spiritual enlightenment/transcendence/awakening is in our search for and realization of this world/force/consciousness/truth/field/something within ourselves.

Theosophy is thus also a kind of mysticism, or occultism. Ideas that one might call “theosophical” have therefore existed for centuries, in the form of beliefs such as Christian Gnosticism (incidentally, Holst set a gnostic text to music entitled “The Hymn of Jesus”), Jewish Kaballah, Islamic Sufism, and other mysticisms, religious or otherwise. The more modern usage of the term, though, began with the founding of the Theosophical Society in 1875 by Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott. Aiming to create a more organized and comprehensive philosophy, the Theosophical Society incorporated ideas from different cultures (in particular, Eastern philosophy: at one point the Society was headquartered in India; the idea of a pervasive, divine consciousness is especially in line with Hinduism and Buddhism), as well as elements of the natural sciences. As a synthesis of religion, science, and philosophy, it was a modern ideology for a modern age. Unsurprisingly, Theosophy became a huge hit throughout European artistic circles, and the rest is history.



A generic image I found googling “astrology planets”.

The “divine wisdom” of Theosophy would thus have been greatly appealing to the soul-searching Holst, who was friends with a number of Theosophists (although it was first introduced to him during childhood by his step-mother). Apart from providing a forum for philosophical discourse, it opened doors to a number of methods of self-examination. One such method was Astrology, about which Holst owned a number of books. Why Astrology? As Raymond Head relates, “The answer is probably that [Holst] must have been curious about his own future in the light of his apparent failures. By knowing more about himself he would know more about his future. In this he would be helped by the astrological chart, which Holst realized was a map of his own psyche.”

Among the astrological texts that Holst owned was a book he acquired in 1912 entitled ‘The Art of Synthesis’ by Alan Leo, a man who is sometimes referred to as the “father of modern astrology”. This book, taking its cues from Theosophy, described something called “Esoteric Astrology”, which asserted that human beings are all spiritually the same, although we are manifested differently, and that our manifestation is dependent on “seven principles”.  Each human being has his or her own “temperament”, which means, according to Leo, the “‘tempering’ of all forces that pass through and out of the human body; and to have transcended the human stage means no less an achievement than the tempering of all the elements into one harmonious whole.” The forces/principles of which Leo speaks, of course, are those of the planets in our solar system. Additionally, in his book Leo dedicated individual chapters to discussing the attributes and temperaments associated with each of the seven planets, with titles such as “Mars the Energiser”, “Jupiter the Uplifter”, and “Neptune the Mystic”.

If you haven’t guessed it yet, this was the direct inspiration for The Planets, Op. 32. Although Holst’s titles are slightly different (except for Neptune), the gist remains the same. Each movement represents not so much a world, but instead a temperament-governing force. Although Holst had also described The Planets as “a series of mood pictures”, he later told a friend that the suite dealt with the “seven influences of destiny and constituents of our spirit”. More importantly, though, Holst referred to the composition as “my planets”: that is, the piece as a whole has a kind of autobiographical edge, that for Holst, each movement represented a different component of his spirit or temperament.

Furthermore, note that the order of the movements of The Planets are not heliocentric: rather than beginning with Mercury and having Mars come after Venus (as Alan Leo had ordered his chapters), Holst chose to begin with Mars. Why is this? Again according to Raymond Head, the ordering of the movements corresponds to a life cycle: “Astrologically, the pattern is clear: the order of the planets symbolizing the unfolding experience of life from youth to old age.” He cites the violence of Mars as representing the shock of creation, of birth; following war must be peace (Venus); perhaps the spritely Mercury can be used to imagine youth; Jupiter, adulthood; Saturn, old age (incidentally, Head asserts that Saturn acts as the peak of the suite’s golden ratio, which is not something that I had ever heard before); Uranus, beginning with the four note “GuStAv H.” motif, likens Holst’s role of Composer to that of a wise, humorous magician (perhaps); and the cold, eeriness of Neptune signifying “the moments when the mortal self seems to fall away and one is face to face with the eternal spirit”. To be completely honest, I don’t fully buy this explanation: perhaps Head got carried away reading ‘The Art of Synthesis’ and thereafter contorted the piece to fit his creative descriptions (although to be fair, I only read the introduction of ‘The Art’). I do, however, think there is something to be said about the programmatic, cyclic nature of the piece, if for no other reason than that I can hear a kind of cycle when I listen to it. And I will also add that until I started considering the idea, I hadn’t noticed that Neptune ends in 5/4 meter, just like the beginning of Mars. Eerie, huh?

But whatever the case, it doesn’t really matter. The Planets, Op. 32 is still just as fresh as ever. It’s been captivating audiences for years and will probably continue to do so for years to come. Even after weeks of listening to and writing about it, I only love it all the more.

Go listen to the freaking Planets.

Stay tuned for Space Music, Part 3: Lucia and Friends Go to the Moon!


P.S. (Pluto Script)

The question everyone’s burning to ask: what about Pluto? I wondered the same as a kid. Of course, The Planets was composed 1914-19, prior to the discovery of Pluto. Well, as it turns out, following the discovery of the (then) planet back in 1930, somebody did ask Holst about writing a new movement. But Holst, who was seriously burned out from the piece (since he felt it distracted from the rest of his oeuvre), firmly refused.

There are, however, quite a few additional movements created by other composers, including a fully-composed Pluto by both Colin Matthews and an amusing improvisation by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. There’s also a set of four pieces commissioned by Simon Rattle and the Berlin Phil called “The Asteroids“. Definitely worth a listen.


P. P. S. (Post Pluto Script)

Here’s a Spotify link to the Dutoit/Montreal/1989 recording of The Planets. It’s the one I grew up on, and one of my all-time favorites:


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Head, Raymond. “Holst and India (I) ‘Maya’ to ‘Sita’.” Tempo -3.158 (1986): 2. JSTOR. Web.
Head, Raymond. “Holst–Astrology and Modernism in “The Planets”” JSTOR. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 July 2015.
Leo, Alan. “Introduction.” Introduction. The Art of Synthesis. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Print.
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Root, Corie Stanton. “Gustav Holst: The Cloud Messenger, for Chorus & Orchestra, Op. 30, H. 111.” All Music. All Music, n.d. Web.
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“Theosophy.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 09 Aug. 2015.
“What Is Theosophy?” N.p., n.d. Web. 18 July 2015.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 16 July 2015.
Woolfe, Zachary. “When Holst Read the Mahabharata.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 11 May 2012. Web. 17 July 2015.
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